When we talk about America’s decline what do we really mean?
In international relations, the decline of country X naturally implies the decline of power or/and status. By power, as realists would argue, it means a decrease of aggregated material power capabilities such as the size of the economy, military capacity and some other ‘important’ factors that are sometimes known as the ‘soft power’, ’sphere of influence’ or ‘prestige’. The sum of hard power and soft power of a country is approximately equal to status, the recognition of a country’s ranking in world politics.
If the decline of a country is the decline of power, then, has America declined? Is America declining? The answer is: probably not. In my opinion, America is declining--not in terms of power, but ‘happiness’.
Can countries be ‘happy’? You might wonder. Undoubtedly, countries cannot be happy because countries do not feel. Nevertheless, happiness is irreducible to a neurobiological reaction to the external environment. Instead of thinking happiness as an emotion, I see ‘happy’ or ‘happiness’ as the ‘ultimate goal’ of states.
Can countries be ‘happy’? You might wonder.
Many contend that happiness is the ultimate pursuit of human life. More than anybody else, Aristotle believes happiness as a central purpose of human life and a goal in itself. If there is an ultimate purpose of human existence, is there an ultimate goal of state existence? If yes, what is it? My next research project explores the role of happiness in international politics.
In International Relations, we do not use terms such as the ‘ultimate goal’ or the ‘ultimate purpose’ because these terms were deemed inappropriate to discuss state behavior. Yet, the hidden assumption in the scholarship is that all states pursue power and status. The ways in which IR scholars conceptualize and analyze power in their studies suggest that power-maximization has always been the ultimate pursuit of states.
But is power really the ultimate pursuit of state existence? Do all countries, especially great powers, regard power-maximizing and status-seeking as their ultimate goal? Becoming rich maybe a dream of many people, and the pursuit of wealth may be common amongst human societies. Many do not regard wealth accumulation their ultimate life goal. Moreover, some individuals value non-material factors such as health, love, family and friends, and other forms of spiritual pursuits, and regard these things more important and lasting than wealth and power.
Given the diversity of ‘needs’ or ‘pursuits’ exhibited in human societies, why is there a reason to believe that states, especially great powers, regard power-maximization their ultimate goal? I argue that a state’s ultimate pursuit is similar to a person’s ultimate pursuit, that is happiness. In particular, states pursue their ultimate goal by constructing and legitimizing their happiness strategies—a mechanism more commonly associated with individuals pursuing happiness. To understand a state’s pursuits we can learn from the ways in which people define and pursue happiness.
First, happiness should be understood as cultural-construct. It has been noticed that in modern societies, conceptions of happiness primarily practice, focusing on what we might call the techniques of happiness. In other words, what really matters is not what happiness is, but the issue of how to get it. While happiness is often conceptualized as the highest form of human values, but human values and emotions are not permanently fixed.
Philosopher Nat Rutherford notices that “some values which were once paramount, such as honour or piety, have faded in importance, while emotions like ‘acedia’ have disappeared completely. Both the language we use to describe our values and emotions and even the feelings themselves are unstable.”1 Happiness as a form of human value, is temporally and spatially contingent. My next point is related to the contingency of happiness in the modern periods.
It is hard to know how to define what happiness really is and how to achieve it. But societies often a shared understanding of what a happy life entails. According to a survey conducted by IPSOS across 20 countries, found out that more than 71 per cent of Chinese say they gauge their success by the things they own. That is significantly higher than it was for every other country included in the survey.
On the other hand, Nordic countries generally do not measure success and happiness by the things they own. Less than 10 per cent of Swedish consider material possessions the source of happiness. Research has demonstrated that some ‘happiness’ tend to last longer than some. Among other factors, what may be deemed a source of happiness, such as wealth and power, does not always translate into happiness.
Like individuals, countries have developed different understandings and various strategies to obtain and improve happiness. I challenge the power-centric approach of IR and make a few new claims:
1. Like individuals, states have an ultimate goal: happiness
2. Happiness manifests in different forms: domination, prestige, equality
3. Power is just a means to an end
Here goes my third point, that status restoration is probably not the right way of regaining happiness.
Power is not always a viable source of happiness—it could bring people some degree of happiness but not always. When it fails, it might be wise to seek for alternative sources of happiness.
What is the US’s ultimate goal? How does the US pursue its own understanding of ‘happiness’? For the US, it seems the path towards it ultimate goal is power. The US has to be THE power of the world, that is to say, America has to have an absolute advantage over other countries.
Now, Americans are more divided than ever. Peoples are deeply dissatisfied with the government’s performance during the Covid-19 crisis. Power maximization and status restoration are not the best solutions to solve these problems. What makes a country a beacon of light for the rest of the world? Is it power? Is it cultural superiority? Maybe. But it could also be: the country is happy. Who is going to replace the US as the beacon of light? A happy country.
Thus, American leaders should make Americans happy again. Biden’s policy goals should prioritize US domestic problems. ‘America first’ does not help to address some of these problems. Instead, the new administration should make an effort to tear down the ‘walls’ that were built between different groups in America (i.e., gender, race and class).
Two, be forward-looking. Make America great again is backwards-looking, and it triggers anxiety. Biden administration is likely to continue some aspects of Trump’s tough China policy. Some commentators believe that Biden’s team inherits features from both Obama and Trump eras. The National Security Council under Trump administration has had two China directors: one focused on traditional military and security areas and the other focused on economic statecraft.
Bidens’s team will make adjustments based on the existing NSC structure, but changes will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. China is a backwards-looking country who wishes to ‘restore its past glory’ (God knows what they mean). At the least, the US should NOT imitate China’s great power aspiration.
1 Nat Rutherford, “Why our pursuit of happiness may be flawed”. BBC Future. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210105-why-our-purs